West of Woolwich: Bells on the Kennebec

Posted Wednesday, November 21, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Bells on the Kennebec

by Fred Kahrl

      …. or, “ After the Great Bell Raid”

 

Imagine waking up in your summer cottage bed on a calm, foggy morning and being able to count the separate tones of no fewer than three fog bells. If there was a slight breath of wind from the Northwest, threatening to push the fog back out to sea, there was even a fourth bell calling faintly upriver near Phippsburg.

Where urban and inland kids might grow up with church bells and such, I was able to snuggle down under my quilt and listen to these nautical guides calling sweetly through the damp morning air.

 In those days there were fog bells on Pond Island Light, at Fort Popham, at Perkins Island Light and at Squirrel Point Light … all marking the entrance and lower reaches of the Kennebec River.

 

Closer to Bath, and out of my earshot, I knew there was a bell at Fiddlers Reach and another at Doubling Point Light.

Two and a half miles off Popham Beach, Seguin Island Light Station thumped away with a diaphone … two air-driven brass horns that sounded one after the other with a distinctive “WoooOOOoooo-thump!” But before the diaphone replaced the original steam whistle, Seguin also had a fog bell, which … as a child visitor … I recall seeing half buried in the cinder pile left over from the days of steam.

Then, in the 1960’s, in anticipation of replacing the human Lightkeepers with automation, the U.S. Coast Guard began experimenting with electric foghorns that could be turned on by electronic sensors, all powered by solar cells. As these gadgets were perfected and installed, the windows of the keepers’ quarters were boarded up, the keepers moved “ashore” and the bells’ sweet voices were replaced by a thin “whooooooo” … like someone lost in the fog.

And then the bells began to disappear. That’s right … one day they would be hanging silently in their accustomed places and the next … Poof! … gone? At Perkins Island and Squirrel Point, where the bells had been hung from stout timbers, I could clearly see where a chainsaw had been used.

Poof!

Flash forward to 1973. I return home from my Coast Guard tour in Alaska and go to work as a copy editor on the State Desk of the Portland Press Herald. The newspaper still maintained a district office in Rockland where CWO4 Ken Black was in charge of the Coast Guard base there. Ken was a self-taught, self-motivated gatherer of precious items that told the story of the Coast Guard’s maritime history on the coast of Maine.

In a warehouse somewhere in Rockland, he stored a grand assortment of memorabilia, including many of the fog bells that had been made obsolete by automation. Ken had gathered up the bells before clever thieves could how to handle up to a ton of bronze alloy. Everyone knew that Ken hoped that someday this trove would be the seed from which would grow a Maritime Museum.

Discovering this in the course of my work, I petitioned Ken for the return of the Perkins Island bell to Georgetown … which included the bell’s island home … with the promise that I would see that the bell was permanently mounted in front of the Town Hall/Elementary School. Ken was delighted and I buzzed down to Rockland in my pick-up.

Well, it was a half-ton pick-up and the bell was 1,000 pounds, but the truck acted like it was more like a ton. Nonetheless, I got it home and, about a year later, got it hung in front of the school. The principal was tickled, and assigned the student flag raisers to also ring the bell to start classes each day.

Sweet!

Two months ago, the custodian called to say that the “feet” of the timber arch holding the bell had rotted and they had temporarily taken it down. So, in the next few days I will mill out some new timbers. The base that I poured back in ’74 has been freshly landscaped and seeded and the Town Fathers are itching to re-hang the bell before the snow flies.

And they are not alone in their enthusiasm to honor these wonderful icons of the Kennebec River’s maritime heritage.

As the abandoned lighthouses were turned over to … one at a time … to non-profit keeper organizations, the volunteer members began to wonder where “their” bells had gone.

They were not so fortunate as I. Ken had retired, and though the Museum eventually came to be, in the meantime many of the bells had drifted away to new homes to be displayed and enjoyed, rather than languishing in a dark warehouse.

The non-profit Range Light Keepers have gone to great pains to fully restore the fog bell tower in Fiddlers Reach, even to the point of restoring a clockwork mechanism similar to the one that originally rang the bell. But the bell itself was elusive until, after years of research, one of the Keepers founding members traced it to the U. S. Coast Guard Academy. where it was on display on the steps of the college library.

Negotiations are underway, and the Coast Guard is again being quite agreeable.

For the Friends of the Seguin Island Light Station (FOSILS), the search for their bell was more arduous. There was no paper trail so it was only after several years of tracking down former USCG sailors who served on Seguin that a likely candidate was found mounted behind the Coast Guard lifeboat station in Boothbay Harbor.

 

 Once again …negotiations are underway, with the Coast Guard being quite agreeable.

Thus, so far, three of the Kennebec’s bells have been located and are in several different stages of being made presentable for audiences who never heard them doing their original work.

This does not mean that these bells will be heard again when the fog rolls in from the sea. However, the Range Light Keepers have every hope that when their restored clockwork and bell are re-united they will operate together for any curious visitors.

These bells are as much a part of our “lighthouse legacy” as are the lights themselves, but few would imagine that they might ever come “home”. Yet here they are coming, both as a testimonial to the perseverance of the volunteer keepers and as a poignant reminder of a time coastal seaman knew each and every one of their voices.

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